Human nature bends us toward surrounding ourselves with people who think like us, look like us or act like us. That played out in last Monday night’s Chapel Hill Town Council meeting in which council members debated whether to appoint someone to fill Matt Czajkowski’s seat or to wait until the election in November when voters will decide.
During the nearly eight years Czajkowski served on the council, his vote frequently was the only one to break the unanimity on the dais. Often his questioning the wisdom of a path the rest of the council seemed predetermined to follow resulted in his colleagues heaping scorn and disdain on him.
How does having a board of insiders who all think alike or who can be persuaded to vote alike work in practice? Just ask the stockholders of Enron or Worldcom. In the years since those two corporations went down in flames, shareholders have embraced the move toward boards with a majority of members from outside the organization. Diversity of thought leads to better decisions.
So when George Cianciolo said having nine voices was better than eight, it sounded good in theory. But in the council’s current state, with eight people all voting the same in almost all instances, what benefit comes from installing a ninth person who votes the same, or appointing one naïve outsider to be the sacrificial lamb?
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Six people applied for the seat, four of them men who have skills and viewpoints that would add richness to discussions but who have had no prior experience on town advisory boards or visible advocacy roles on issues before the council. That could lead some sitting council members to eye them with distrust.
Though clearly all four of the political neophytes are accomplished in their fields and passionate about the perspective they could add to discussions about what is best for the town, Town Council members have no way of knowing how the untested might vote on major development proposals to be decided before the November election. And if an unknown were to be appointed who proved to have common sense and be unafraid to speak up, would that make incumbents up for re-election look bad?
The council opted for a two-tiered approach: First, vote on whether to appoint, then if necessary, fill out a ballot on whom to appoint. The first vote will take place at the council’s May 4 work session and will be repeated every council meeting until an appointment is made or voters elect someone in November. That puts pressure on all council members to be present for every meeting to defend their position. In a divided council, one member’s absence one time could change the outcome.
If the council were to make an appointment, the fairest choice would be to select Amy Ryan, the fifth-highest vote-getter in the last election. By going with the voters’ choice, the council would rise above any taint of bias. With 13 years of advisory board experience, Ryan is well-versed in the issues council is poised to vote on and could add an informed voice.
But in the two appointments made in the past six years, the council both times chose an insider over the fifth-highest vote-getter.
Jim Ward made a case for waiting until the November election. All six applicants could campaign for office, and voters could explore candidates’ theories of how to shape our town. With the mayor’s seat and four council seats up for grabs, voters have the chance to put five new council members on the dais. Five new points of view would add breadth and depth to council discussions and provide the diversity of thought for better decisions.
Nancy E. Oates writes the Chapel Hill Watch blog.